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Religious Conservatives Celebrate John Boehner's Downfall—and Pray Mitch McConnell Is Next

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

This morning, when Senator Marco Rubio interrupted his address to the Values Voter Summit in Washington to break the news that House Speaker John Boehner was resigning, the crowd of conservative Christian activists immediately rose to their feet, breaking into cheers and shouts of “Amen!” 

“The time has come to turn the page,” Rubio declared to raucous applause. After the speech, the overjoyed activists described Boehner as the emblem of all that’s wrong with Washington today: too weak, too moderate, and unwilling to listen to the conservative base. “Mr. Boehner has no backbone when it comes to standing up for principles that Christians believe in,” said Ron Goss, an activist from Locust Dale, Virginia. 

“It’s absolutely best news I’ve heard in months,” said Judith Neal, a Christian activist from San Dimas, California.

“I am delighted because he’s been there too long,” said Gary Frazier, a Christian organizer from Colleyville, Texas. Like the other conservatives assembled from around the country for the weekend summit, Frazier has said that conservatives expected big things after the 2014 midterms and Republicans took full control of Congress. Instead, he continued, “it’s been a year and a half of nothing.” Nobody on the religious right has been fooled by the current Republican threat to shut down the govenment over Planned Parenthood funding, he said, calling it "nothing but political posturing." 

The moment they heard about Boehner, the mood among the activists—so long frustrated by electing Republicans who didn't carry out their agenda effectively—became almost giddy. “I’m just a little overwhelmed,” Neal said, holding her hand to her heart. “He’s held back Congress from doing all the right things." But he's not the only one, she said. Like many activists, Neal immediately began hoping that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would be next, adding that she was now feeling more hopeful that the Republican establishment was finally—finally!—starting to listen.   

There was no consensus among activists as to who the next speaker should be, but they expressed confidence that it would be someone from the GOP’s right flank who’d be more friendly to their social agenda than Boehner. Shak Hill, a Ted Cruz supporter and Virginia-based activist, said that the new speaker should force President Obama to veto more bills. “We’re not putting forward enough issues to show [Obama's] true colors,”  Hill said. Tammi Wilson, 51, a conservative activist from North Carolina, agreed: She’d specifically like to see the next Speaker bring up bills that challenge funding on a line-by-line basis, as opposed to the omnibus spending bills that have kept the government open. Republicans like Boehner, she said, haven't done so because "they're afraid of Obama."

The right flank of the GOP has been calling for Boehner to resign for years, but the shadow of the 2016 elections seems to have done him in. In the short term, Boehner’s resignation could conceivably help Republican candidates convince disillusioned and frustrated GOP voters that change is possible after all, that there's renewed hope of their agenda advancing. But those hopes could also backfire on the Republican establishment, precisely because of the renewed optimism that evangelicals were reveling in this morning: Cynicism and frustration with Washington have hurt the candidates who already hold office. But what happens when the frustrations set in again, and activists want the insurgents to flex their muscles and topple the establishment again?

Senator Ted Cruz, who’s counting on the religious right to be a cornerstone of his campaign, wasn’t worrying about that for now: Taking the stage shortly after his presidential rival, Rubio, broke the news about Boehner, Cruz used the speaker's resignation as a rallying cry. “You want to know how much each of you terrify Washington?" Cruz asked, clearly feeling the buzz of unexpected optimism in the crowd. "Yesterday, John Boehner was speaker of the House. Y’all come to town and all of a sudden that changes. My only request is that you come more often.”